AFTER FOUR MONTHS OF PLANNING, we had our annual survey of The 50 Most Beautiful People in the World pretty much in order. Then, as we put the final touches on that project—and simultaneously wrapped up a special-issue tribute to the slain Tejano singer Selena, which went on sale April 24—an explosion ripped through downtown Oklahoma City, killing dozens, many of them children. Days later, Howard Cosell and Ginger Rogers died after long, eventful lives, and a popular TV anchorwoman got married. As we go to press, the second-largest regular issue in PEOPLE’S 21 years continues to change as the news pulls our thoughts and emotions—and our editorial staff—in dramatically different directions.
The Oklahoma story was, of course, our main focus. In all, 12 PEOPLE correspondents and 8 photographers traveled to the blast site and tracked the story from Arizona to New York. For them it soon became clear that reporting this story presented a unique challenge. “All our correspondents told me this story has affected them like no other,” says PEOPLE’S Houston bureau chief, Anne Maier, 41, who directed reporters at the bomb site. “We’re a tough bunch. But on this story we’ve all found ourselves in tears at times.”
Special correspondent Bob Stewart, 56, a veteran of 33 years of reporting, says he began weeping in his Oklahoma City motel room one night “for all the grandparents and their losses. I couldn’t rest until I called and spoke to my own 2-year-old granddaughter, Christina.”
PEOPLE reporters didn’t pressure victims and family members who declined to be interviewed. But when special correspondent Michael Haederle, 39, spoke to the family of Dana Bradley, whose two children were lost in the blast and who had a leg amputated as she lay pinned in the rubble, he found them “surprisingly willing to talk. I think it helped with the grieving. I found myself hugging people I had just met.”
Correspondent Carlton Stowers, 53, noted the way city residents pitched in to help. “Here,” he says, “they have a pioneer heritage of neighbor helping neighbor.” But there were darker moments too. In Perry, Okla., photographer Barbara Laing, 36, documented bombing suspect Timothy McVeigh’s transfer to federal authorities. “He looked so cleancut,” she says. “He didn’t hang his head like some accused. He looked proud.”
Finally our team struggled with the physical toll of covering such a story. Last Tuesday special correspondent Joseph Harmes, 42, admitted he was “approaching 36 hours without sleep. The story changes so much.” So, it seems, has Oklahoma City. “It’ll be a long time before they get over this, if ever,” says Haederle. “This is a defining moment for the city.” As it was, too, for the PEOPLE journalists who witnessed the Oklahomans’ grief and courage firsthand.